Americans are accustomed to thinking of the U.S. Constitution as the framework for the democratic system of government upon which the country was founded. But one of the reasons that the Constitution has worked for more than two centuries is that it's essentially a do-over. The Founding Fathers got to learn from and correct the mistakes made in the new nation's initial blueprint, a document called the Articles of Confederation, which was in force from 1781 until 1789.
"The main purpose of the 1787 Constitution was to overcome the Confederation's shortcomings," explains historian George William Van Cleve. He's a former research professor in law and history at Seattle University School of Law, where he wrote the 2017 book "We Have Not a Government: The Articles of Confederation and the Road to the Constitution," and is currently an adjoint faculty member in history at the University of Colorado Boulder.
The Articles of Confederation resulted from wartime necessity. In June 1776, when the delegates to the Continental Congress authorized Thomas Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence, they realized that they had to replace British rule with some sort of national government. They also set up a committee to create a framework document. Given that Americans were trying to break free from the yoke of an oppressive royal regime, many weren't too keen on replacing it with a powerful central government.
"John Dickinson, a lawyer who was very conservative, was put in charge of the committee," explains historian Willard Sterne Randall, an emeritus professor at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, and author of numerous works on early American history, including "Unshackling America: How the War of 1812 Truly Ended the American Revolution."
Benjamin Franklin was also selected for the committee, and he took the opportunity to dust off the Albany Plan, a proposal for a colonial confederation under British rule that he had proposed back in 1754, according to Randall. One of Franklin's inspirations for that plan was the Great Law of Peace followed by the Iroquois nation.
While Franklin's Albany Plan hadn't gained much traction when he originally pitched it, this time – perhaps because the Continental Congress was in a hurry – he had more luck. "The Articles of Confederation closely followed the Albany Plan, in all its defects," Randall says. Take out the allegiance to the British crown, and "there were basically no differences."
The text of the Articles of Confederation envisioned the U.S. as a loose group of sovereign states that, to quote from the Articles, entered into "a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defence, the security of their Liberties, and their mutual and general welfare."
What the Articles Lacked
The Articles of Confederation created a system of government very different than the one we have today. Instead having a House of Representatives and a Senate in Congress, there was a single chamber with each state represented by two to seven delegates appointed by state legislatures and limited to three-year terms. When it came time to enact legislation, the delegates from a particular state worked out their position on the issue and then cast a single vote on behalf of that state.
The Confederation was a pretty weak setup. But as Randall points out, it served its purpose initially, which was to create an alliance of a bunch of rebellious colonies that still viewed themselves as separate powers. "The U.S. had what you could call a provisional government," he says, noting that it's not clear whether the nation's founders even intended the Confederation to be permanent.
The Articles of Confederation allowed the Confederation to mint coins, set up a national postal system, build and equip a national navy and conduct diplomacy, among other powers. But the national government didn't have any power of taxation, so it had to depend upon the states to provide it with funds. And it had to count upon the states to supply troops during wartime. There wasn't a separate judicial or executive branch, though Congress did have a president, appointed by a committee, who served for a term of up to three years.
Even so, it took until March 1781 to get all the states to agree to ratify the Articles of Confederation. Maryland, which didn't have any room to expand, held out because it insisted that other states give up their claims on lands on the western frontier (now the Midwest). Virginia, which had insisted that its boundaries extended from sea to sea, finally agreed to relent.
But it wasn't until after the Revolutionary War ended in 1783 that the Articles of Confederation's flaws started to become glaringly apparent. The Confederation had trouble borrowing needed money overseas, because it didn't have any taxation power to make it creditworthy, Randall says. Worse yet, the states, which were functioning in some ways as if they were separate countries, started hitting one another with tariffs. "New York City had to import firewood from New Jersey and pay customs duties," Randall says. "It cost more to import something from New York to Connecticut than it did to get it from Europe. "
By the mid-to-late 1780s, it became apparent that something had to change. Two conflicting points of view about the solution emerged, according to Van Cleve.
One side, led by George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin, saw the Articles as unsustainable, because the government that it created lacked sovereign powers. "In their view, the key sovereign powers were taxation and military authority, together with the power to enforce decisions made by the national government — and the Confederation lacked all of these," Van Cleve says. Another group, headed by leaders such as Samuel Adams and Richard Henry Lee, believed that the loose union created by the Articles of Confederation was the ideal setup for a republic, and figured that it could be fixed with a few tweaks, such as providing the Confederation with limited taxation authority.
"The debate over every stage of creating the 1787 Constitution — from calling the Philadelphia Convention through the fight over ratification — was principally a contest between these two schools of thought," Van Cleve says.
The U.S. Constitution Is Ratified
Eventually, though, the proponents of a strong central government won out, and the new Constitution was completed in 1787 and ratified the following year. On March 4, 1789, the Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation.
Though the new document created a much more powerful federal government, it did retain at least one significant vestige from the Articles, in that it still gave each state, regardless of population, the same number of votes — two — in the Senate, according to Van Cleve.
That provision was the result of a hard-fought compromise, the so-called 'Connecticut compromise,' between delegates such as James Wilson of Pennsylvania and James Madison of Virginia. They "believed strongly that in a republican government, all states should have political representation in the national government proportional to their relative wealth or population — those were fairly closely correlated at the time — compared to other states, and small state delegates who believed that states should be equally represented, as they were under the Articles," Van Cleve explains.
Here's a video of a talk on the Articles of Confederation that Van Cleve gave at the National Archives in 2017: